Manchester United Transfers: 10 Wild Card Signings for January?
Sir Alex Ferguson says he doesn't sign players in January, but in January 2007 he stunned everyone with the inspired signing of Henrik Larsson.
Although Larsson only scored three goals in 13 matches, he had a galvanising effect on the squad, which went on to win the Premier League that season and reached the semi-final of the Champions League.
Ferguson was delighted with his signing in every way: "He's been fantastic for us, his professionalism, his attitude, everything he's done has been excellent."
So who might he sign to surprise us this January?
While he is insisting at every press conference that he will buy no one in January, there are many reasons why he may in fact do so.
There is a shocking catalogue of injuries. None of the other top teams are remotely near the number of players that United have in their treatment room. On Friday, United had nine players injured, Arsenal eight, but Chelsea, Liverpool and City had no more than three. In the latter case, Kolarov is the only problem, but even his is not serious.
What is even more disturbing is the number of those United injuries that are long term. Vidic may be out for a year and the seriousness of his injury—to all three of his knee ligaments—may mean he never returns. He certainly will never be the same player.
Anderson's own knee problems have returned. He broke a leg before he joined United and his own ligament difficulties are worrying. How many teams have had four such injuries at the same time? Chicharito damaged his ankle ligaments and will not be back before Christmas. Cleverley has been out for most of the season with a similar problem, because he was brought back too early.
With Fabio and Rafael suffering recurring niggles and Owen's perennial problems, Sir Alex has plenty to think about.
The other key factor is the departure from the Champions League. Although some might think this reduces the manager's challenges, he is a proud man and the financial advisers will be looking to fill the £20 million hole in the bucket from missing out on the knockout stages.
A Team in Transition, or a Club in Transition?
Plenty of people talk of Manchester United as a team in transition—not for the first time under Sir Alex Ferguson. He is trying to integrate the next generation of young players with an aging core of the squad. Scholes, Neville, Ronaldo, Van der Saar, O'Shea, Brown have gone. Giggs, Evra, Carrick, Berbatov, Ferdinand, Park, Owen will all probably go in the next two to three years.
But are United also a club in transition. While the Glazers' ownership has been widely unpopular, the club has been reinvented as a commercial business under the leadership of David Gill. Ferguson has been complicit in this. In general, he spends his money wisely and is as frugal as he can be.
To an extent this can be justified if he is still able to find bright young talent from United's Academy. Nobody outside the club thought that 'Fergie's Fledglings' would usher in an era of unparalleled success. That was the team that won the 1995 FA Youth Cup.
Sir Matt Busby created this rich heritage of home-produced talent. United won the FA Youth Cup in its first five years of existence. Those teams were the foundations of two generations of Busby Babes—pre and post the Munich disaster.
The team that won the same Cup last year had arguably an even greater breadth of talent.
Then there is the matter of the timing of Sir Alex's retirement. He alone will decide that, but he will not leave the club in dire straits at the last minute. You can be sure that a succession plan is already in place, agreed between Sir Alex, David Gill and Sir Bobby Charlton and rubber-stamped by the owners.
So although we may not know his own private plans and he appears to intend going on for a while yet (if his reaction to Wednesday night's disaster is representative), to satisfy his own pride and professionalism he has to balance his immediate plans for the team with the legacy he would wish to leave.
In that respect, it has become crystal clear that the most important aspects are: a club in sound sporting, business and financial condition; and above all a rich legacy and continuing vein of talented players on which to build the success of the next 10 years at least.
Whether you believe Tom Cleverley is the answer to the midfield conundrum, there is no denying two things: It hasn't been sorted since Roy Keane and later, Paul Scholes retired, and there is an immediate problem to be addressed. The resources are threadbare, and there is the most challenging Premiership for years, as well as fighting through the Europa League and, if possible, winning the FA Cup.
The other needs that must be addressed one way or another are central defence and goal-scoring.
Vidic may never return. You could read the tension in Sir Alex's face at his Friday Press Conference when he referred to Rio Ferdinand. Rio is playing as well as anyone at the moment but the extra games may put an intolerable stress on his back, and, if that gives way, three young centre backs will have to carry the team through the above challenges.
Up front, the dearth of credible resource was exposed on Saturday against Wolves. Macheda was the only striker on the bench and he has convinced no-one that he has a long-term future at United—both with his miss against Basel and his lack of impact against Wolves.
Sir Alex may talk up Diouf but surely that is only to get somebody else to pay good money to take him away. He is not even good enough to be a squad player at United, and it is hard to understand why Will Keane hasn't been given a chance ahead of him so far.
Sir Alex's Capacity to Surprise
He surprised us in 2007 with Larsson, and nobody expected the January signings of Vidic and Evra. Andy Cole and Diego Forlan also arrived in January.
He says he will not be making signings in January 2011 and argues about value and availability. But his asides indicate he would still consider someone at the right price and in the right circumstances.
So if we're looking for a wild card factor, it would need to balance the immediate needs with his longer term plans and the hunger to win something this year.
Elsewhere we have written about prospective transfers that are for the longer term. Here, we consider the short term expedients and one longer term prospect that could surprise us, without upsetting the apple cart.
There are two reasons why Sir Alex Ferguson might sign another striker: The first is Chicharito's injury; the second is that he may need to use Berbatov as bait to sign a player from Italy or Spain.
Sir Alex has been a long-time admirer of Raul, who played well for Schalke in the Champions League semis last year.
At 34, he is a similar age to Henrik Larsson when he signed. Apart from doing a job when needed, Raul would be a similar signing to Michael Owen. He has obvious class, stays very fit, plays off the shoulder of defenders and would be a strong positive influence on the young strikers coming through.
He is in the last year of his contract at Schalke, who are keen on signing Lucas Podolski. If the latter were to be available in January, Raul could be moved on.
In any case, his contract expires next summer. It would be a smart move for all concerned for Sir Alex to offer a modest fee and an 18-month contract to this striking legend.
Alessandro Del Piero
Alessandro del Piero is also a legend approaching the end of his career. Judging by the standing ovation he got in Gary Neville's testimonial, he would be hugely popular with the Stretford End.
He may be 37, but he is one of the most artful footballers of all time, featuring in the FIFA 100.
He is the ultimate 'trequarista' that United are missing since Paul Scholes was at his best. For the last few months of 2011/12, he could fill an important need at Old Trafford while Cleverley and others develop and before setting sail for a lucrative contract in the US.
Here is another player that Sir Alex has sought for several years. He apparently enquired about Kaka's availability recently but was rebuffed with the suggestion by Real Madrid that a part-exchange for Wayne Rooney might be more interesting.
His time at Madrid hasn't turned out anything like what people expected. At the time, he was the most expensive transfer ever—a true Galactico.
In August 2010 he began an eight-month lay-off following knee surgery and, shortly after returning, was laid up again with a chronic thigh problem.
He has shown plenty of signs of his old self since coming back, but has made only eight starts this season. What he needs is game time, which United could give him on loan until the end of the season.
Luca Toni is another player of true class at the wrong end of his career.
He joined Juventus on a free transfer in January 2011, with a contract until June 2012, but has not started this season.
Arsenal, Blackburn and QPR have all been linked with a move for Toni, but why shouldn't Sir Alex take this proven goal-scorer for possibly the last six months of his European career?
If you're looking for a class act in midfield who could tear lesser teams to shreds, look no further than Clarence Seedorf.
He may be at the wrong end of his career at 35, but he can still do a job. Along with Mark van Bommel, he is unlikely to be offered a contract extension as AC Milan look to rebuild, but he might be persuaded to give United his last six months before moving to Brazil to finish his career as a more leisurely pace.
Why would Sir Alex sign an aging striker? Apart from Chicharito's injury and allowing sufficient time for it to heal, he wants to send Macheda and Diouf out on loan. That would leave four proven strikers unless Berbatov was moved on.
Michael Owen's injury susceptibility seems to have returned and, as the Basel match showed, if Rooney is playing in a support role, someone needs to win the ball in the air and put the chances away.
This is what Bobby Zamora is best at. He may be unfashionable, but a Fabio Capello, a world class coach, thinks he is good enough to have played for England.
Meanwhile, he has apparently fallen out with Martin Jol and didn't even make the bench against Swansea. This makes him a racing certainty to be moved on in January.
With him approaching 31, Sir Alex would only give him a one-year contract with a one-year option, but Zamora would undoubtedly jump at the chance to play for a top team, having not made it at Spurs. And there would be no shortage of takers when United wanted to move him on.
Fernando Torres may not be popular at Old Trafford, but he's not exactly man of the moment at Chelsea either.
In fact, he's been a resounding flop. This can be traced back to his failure at the last World Cup, which some have explained as a response to injury.
Clearly the lad has lost his confidence, but he's not at the top of Andre Villas-Boas's charts either. The Chelsea manager is clearly only at the start of a rebuilding process and has already shown with Alex and Anelka that nobody is safe.
Torres was, like Andrei Shevchenko, a Roman Abramovich signing. His best value to the Blues now may be in the transfer market, but he wouldn't fetch even half his original £55 million fee.
Sir Alex is a former striker who is said to have admired Duncan Ferguson. At his best for Liverpool, Torres was as good as any striker in the world. The Boss would be prepared to give him time and work with him to restore his confidence. He would absolutely revel in the United attacking style.
It's great that Sir Alex wants to give his younger players a chance to shine, but is he placing too much trust in Rio Ferdinand to stay injury free? Does he really want to risk returning to the chaotic situation where Carrick and Fletcher were playing centre back?
His dilemma is that he has a truckload of potential young centre backs coming up through the reserves, any two of which might be the Ferdinand or Vidic of the future.
The other problem is that there is no other centre back as combative as Vidic at the club. The nearest thing in the Premier League is probably Samba.
It is said that other top clubs like Arsenal have been interested but Blackburn were reluctant to sell their captain, talismanic defender and goalscorer.
Now the situation may be different. Barclays are said to want £10 million by January and Blackburn may need to raise the funds in a hurry. Samba is their 'jewel in the crown.'
He would hit the ground running at Old Trafford, allow the other centre backs to be rotated and add to the goal threat at corners. He is only 27 and, after a year or 18 months, he could be sold on, almost certainly at a profit.
Gary Cahill looks increasingly like a man who needs to move on. He seems distracted and has lost his playing confidence. He knows he is going in January and almost certainly knows who the bidders are.
In the fortunate position of being able to pick and choose between the clubs ready to meet Bolton's price, if United are among them, it would seem a no-brainer for him to move just down the road and join his future England colleagues, Jones, Smalling, Rooney and Welbeck in time to find some form for the European Championships.
This is another player who Sir Alex has had watched many times. His club, Juventus, are financially stretched.
My own January favourite midfielder to come to Old Trafford would be Riccardo Montolivo, on price and availability, because he is refusing to sign a new contract at Fiorentina.
But now Juventus have shown a strong interest and it makes financial sense. They could sign Montolivo for no more than £15 million on lower wages than Marchisio, who would surely command a fee of £25 million from United.
He would be perfect alongside Cleverley and the other young hopefuls because of his versatility. He prefers to play in central midfield, where he has been likened to Marco Tardelli, but is an excellent combative defensive midfield and can also play on the wing.
Sign him up, Fergie!